The station wagon is dead — again — and like the many demises it has already suffered in its long fruitful life, this one comes with an asterisk. The reason for the asterisk is that there are still dozens of vehicles on the market that answer to the name “station wagon.” The reason for the declaration of death — and subsequent obituaries — is Volvo’s recent announcement that it will soon stop selling station wagons in the U.S.

 

In 1999, the niche purveyor of sensible transport for NPR-Americans sold 40,000 station wagons and felt its fortunes were on the rise thanks to the quirky, post-ironic aesthetic sensibilities of a new generation of car buyers. “It used to be that when you were married and expecting your first child, it… More…

I have two lessons to teach today. I arrive at the Car-Park and start looking for the vehicle I usually use, a red Toyota Camry. It’s gone, but this shouldn’t be a problem. We’re scheduled one car per instructor, so I hunt through the lot looking for another one to use. The only option left is the white Chevy Malibu, the “grandfather of the fleet.” The Malibu is a mean-looking ramrod of a car. Staring at the vehicle, it occurs to me that I might not have enough chest hair to pull this off. The dent-laden car looks worn and tired, as if years of running moonshine in Appalachia have taken their toll.

 

When I open the door, I’m hit with the odor of a Motel 6. I stand for a long moment looking down at a tattered… More…

In a vast ballroom at San Francisco’s Moscone Center, a Jerry Lee Lewis impersonator from the musical Million Dollar Quartet is doing his best to pump up the crowd. It’s 2 p.m. on an unusually warm and sunny Saturday in February, only about half the seats are filled, and truth be told, there is not a whole lot of shakin’ going on — more like a moderate amount of somewhat engaged sitting. But the fact that there’s a crowd here at all, and that it’s not completely unwilling to belt out a chorus when directed by the faux Lewis — or by the other rock ’n’ roll replicants on stage, who include Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and Carl Perkins – stands as a genuine accomplishment.

 

That’s because the crowd is made up of car salesmen, and… More…

The Nano, made by Indian car manufacturer Tata, is billed as “the people’s car.” We’ve seen this sort of thing before. The first time was in Europe — Germany to be precise. The car was the Volkswagen, which means, quite literally, “The People’s Car.” It was Hitler’s idea, more or less. He wanted to build a car for the common man. “A car for the people, an affordable Volkswagen, would bring great joy to the masses and the problems of building such a car must be faced with courage,” he proclaimed at the 1934 Berlin Auto Show. It would be of simple design and able to carry two adults and three children at a speed of 100 kilometers per hour. Hitler asked Dr. Ferdinand Porsche to take up the job and he did. Hitler and Porsche started up a little company called Gesellschaft zur Vorbereitung des Deutschen Volkswagens mbH (Society… More…

Yuca and his “business partner,” Carlitos, were younger than the usual maquina drivers. Their 1950s Chevy was nicer, too, than the average maquina: shiny lavender exterior, smooth cream-colored, faux-leather seat in the front, a stereo that flashed red and blue lights. Something like what James Dean might drive if he were a young Cuban today. They hadn’t reupholstered the back seat yet, and it was still a dirty, greenish hue, the vinyl roping along the edges broken and scratchy. It snagged on girls’ skirts and grocery bags. They had their music turned up high when I hopped in; they listened to a mixed CD of reggaeton interspersed with Marc Anthony and Enrique Iglesias. Skinny Carlitos collected the money from passengers while chubby Yuca took care of driving. Carlos spied someone trying to wave them down and Yuca eased the car to soft stops without interrupting his soft, tone-deaf whistling. They… More…

 

“I have a car,” he whispered in my ear while we danced, and for a moment I was tempted to whisper back, “Me too. It’s a Corolla. Do you know anything about how to fix window seals?”

For the last six months I danced every week at a place with a $3 cover called Andrea’s Cha Cha Cha. On voice mail messages I left for friends in Portland, meant to entice them into coming out and dancing with me, I called it Andrea’s Chach or Andrea’s Cha Cha, and my friends rarely called or even texted back to say they couldn’t make it. So I started to go alone after work. I paid my $3 cover and made my way down to the basement where I hopped onto a bar stool in my work clothes and waited to… More…

My last day at NAIAS is the first day the public’s allowed in. Before this, the COBO Center was open only to the press, and then only to people in the industry (or anyone willing to spend $75, instead of $12, to get in). But through next Sunday, several hundred thousand people will stream through — men in car-brand shirts and hats, women with books that they’ll read in the food court.

Auto shows excite the kind of people who are willing to put out money for what amounts to a walk-through commercial. They grab the large, glossy bags manufactures give out for free; they sometimes grab… More…

Spend more than a day at the North American International Auto Show and you realize that there are many tricks to selling a car, and few involve the car. It can mean putting stuff on the roof, to convey a particular lifestyle through a kayak (Volkswagen), or a bike or snowboard (Suzuki). If you’re MINI, it’s a DJ and team of twenty-somethings who wear matching blue fleece jackets and tight blue jeans one day, and matching red sweatshirts and tight black pants the next. If you’re Ford, it’s the Ford VJ station, at which one can tape a video message to be displayed on a floor-to-ceiling screen. (“Does this have something to do with the technology in the cars?” I asked. “Nope,” an eager VJ told me. “It’s just for fun!”) Toyota has a game stage where you can win M&Ms for answering questions about watershed moments in Toyota history,… More…

In the early part of the 20th century, the automobile blew people’s minds. In his Futurist Manifesto, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti equated the automobile with the liberation of the human spirit. Hearing the sounds of automobiles beneath his window in 1909, he wrote: “At last mythology and the mystic cult of the ideal have been left behind. We are going to be present at the birth of the centaur and we shall soon see the first angels fly!” Later in the Manifesto, Marinetti proclaims: “We want to sing the man at the wheel, the ideal axis of which crosses the earth, itself hurled along its orbit.”

All of this Futurism ended, unfortunately, in fascism. This was the kind of fascism that wanted to blast the old world into a million smithereens to make way for the new man, hard and steely and worthy of the age of machines. In a Russian… More…

My 2000 Volvo wagon has 130,000 miles on it and has begun making some strange noises. I probably should replace it. But with what? It’s a hard question, not just because it’s a major expenditure but also because a car says a lot about its owner, whether the owner likes it or not.

My first car was a Ford Escort, bought because it was cheap and the dealership was nearby. It was red and kind of jolly. Or so I thought, until one day my father came to visit and told me it felt like driving around in a tin can. This had a chilling effect, since my 3-month-old was strapped into the back seat.

Our next car was a Toyota Camry. It was a gray with rough tweed-ish seats and no frills, but it was no tin can. It had the heft and reliability of a Mercedes. It never… More…